The peculiar question of gender equality and economy in Japan

The peculiar question of gender equality and economy in Japan

To get Japan out of its gloomy economic situation that now has lasted for the past 20 years, the country Prime minister devised a new strategy which consists of three pillars: monetary, fiscal and structural reforms. The monetary and fiscal actions of the “Abenomics” received a lot of attention from the international media. On the other hand, the structural reforms went completely unnoticed, although these may be the real factors needed to save Japan’s economy, as ignoring them helped the country’s economic fall from grace.

One of “Abenomics” key structural reforms is about involving more women in the workplace, as the country shows a salient misuse of female talent. In a report by Goldman Sachs, closing the gender employment gap was estimated to boost Japan’s GDP by nearly 13%. Minister Abe seemed to understand the underlying potential and began a series of actions that led to a definite increase in female executives during the past few years. Also, certain laws against harassment were passed, and women no longer have to worry about things like being demoted or fired after getting pregnant. Still, there is a long way ahead for gender equality in the country, as shown by recent reports.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report of 2016, an annual benchmarking exercise by the World Economic Forum (WEF), Education, Health, and political implication are sectors where Japan made progress (although Japan always fared great in the two first parameters). But the gender gap for professional and technical workers kept Japan at the 111th position when the report had Japan ranked 101th last year.

For Ms. Murakami, head of the OECD Tokyo centre, this slide, and the whole situation, are mainly due to a business decision made decades ago.

According to her, the situation of gender equality, especially at the workplace, is strongly linked to how Japan’s economy has developed. The rigid human resources policy, which allowed Japan to go from the shambles of World War II to one of the biggest economies in the world, and caused the huge rift between men and women positions, had worked until the 80s. In fact, it was called the Japanese Miracle.

For the sake of this perfect business model, Japan had to enforce a certain social mold. To obtain high quality manufactured goods, hardworking and homogeneous employees were needed.

The ideal plan for this was for the women to remain stay-at-home mothers, have a lot of children, and support the husband who worked grueling hours. This enforced a male dominant society and undermined the women role in making the country great again, especially in the corporate world.

Now, even though this model stopped to give results after the 80s, women’s position and chances at succeeding in a career have not changed much. Even with Minister Abe push for women to participate more in the Japanese economy, work conditions, such as the brutal business hours and sudden changes of posting do little to help. Men, who are more inclined to bear with such conditions and would seldom quit because of them, end up on the privileged side for recruiting and promotion. Not to mention the difficulties women encounter to find work after giving birth.

Also, there is another factor that cripples the gender equality problem in Japan. Women do little to change the situation, when they should, especially now that their situation has changed. A recent government survey says that a majority of the public favors women continuing to work after giving birth, 54.2 percent of the total to be exact, a first since the survey began in 1992. The survey also highlighted that 54.3 percent opposed the notion that husbands should work outside the home while the housework fell entirely on the wives’ shoulders, a serious rise of 4.9 points from the previous survey in 2014.

Ms. Murakami thinks that the main reason behind this lack of protest is the Japanese woman’s resignation to the fact that she can’t have a career and a family. Seeing that almost all the women executives are either single or married without children leads Japanese women to assume that to reach a managerial position a woman should sacrifice her private life. “They don’t have a role model that shows them that it can be done, like I had as someone who worked abroad.” says Ms. Murakami. She hopes that the young generation will have this someday.

Actually, her wish might come to fruition sooner than expected. While Japanese people still cling to a model that brought them fame and success, they are beginning to realize that this system, as a whole,  is no longer sustainable. Not only because retaining the same conservative people who make conservative decisions and hire the same minded people does not help Japanese companies to adapt to a fast paced environment. Japan is suffering from a crippling shortage of laborers, and simply cannot afford to ignore this untapped economic source anymore. Just as an economic business decision undermined women after World war II, another one might just propel them to stardom.

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